Monday, October 6, 2008

Iron Man

Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub

Running Time: 125 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

We’ve come a long way. The days when superhero films were perceived as nothing more than a goofy joke have come to an end. It took a while, but studio executives have finally seen the light, realizing comic book stories can still be fun even if they're intelligent. There’s nothing wrong with taking the material seriously. Better yet, they realized if the material is up to a certain standard it will attract accomplished actors whose work will make the film even better. Especially if that actor happens to be Robert Downey Jr., who previously wouldn’t have topped anyone’s list as a top candidate to play the title role in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Not because we didn’t think he could do it, but because we didn’t have faith that the powers that be would be smart enough to consider him for the role.

The story is that Favreau pushed hard for Downey to get this and it’s a good thing he did because Iron Man would be a far inferior film without him, perhaps even barely recommendable. Sometimes it hurts your viewing experience to come to a movie late after everyone has already seen it and other times it doesn’t make a difference. This is one of those cases where it really has an impact. This is a big spectacle movie that’s meant to be seen and experienced on the big screen. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the film a great deal, but rather that I got exactly what I expected from it. Nothing more, nothing less.

As far as mainstream recognizabilty and acceptance, Iron Man would probably fall somewhere toward the middle of the superhero food chain, well below Batman and Superman and closer to Daredevil, The Flash and Captain America. But Favreau and Downey do the character a great service by getting us to really get to know and care about the man behind the suit before puling the trigger on all the action. In a huge risk, nearly three quarters of this film is build-up, weaving a story that not only digs slightly deeper than your average superhero film but is also very timely. It’s almost disappointing that by the end you realize it is just a superhero story because there were so many other interesting issues going on. Still, as far as superhero movies go, Iron Man is one of the better ones. More importantly, it’s smart AND fun.
Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark, head of billion-dollar weapons manufacturer, Stark Industries, of which he shares controlling interest with his ruthless business partner, Obidiah Stane (a bearded, chrome-domed Jeff Bridges). But Tony is also a freewheeling, arrogant playboy who likes his cars fast and his women even faster. Struggling to keep his ego in check is his loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and best friend, military man Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard). The film opens as Tony is seriously injured and taken captive by terrorists in Afghanistan while he’s on his way to show off his latest weapons of mass destruction.

With irremovable shrapnel lodged in his chest he’s fitted with an electromagnetic device by a doctor (Shaun Toub) to keep him alive and together they build an armor-plated bulletproof suit that enables his escape. After returning to the States following his ordeal, Tony’s priorities shift dramatically when faced with realization that his work has been aiding terrorists and taking innocent lives. Much to the displeasure of shareholders and the company’s board of directors, he controversially terminates the company’s weapons division, instead donating all his time to perfecting the design of the armor-plated suit. Tony's decision ends up causing much more than just a public relations problem.

I found a lot of the stuff involving the suit to be a little silly. I was just confused as to why this guy who has enough money and power to do whatever he wants to help the world would indulge his new found social awareness by building an indestructible, flying costume. I know I’m supposed to just go with the flow because this is a superhero movie, but because the film introduces such serious story elements like nuclear proliferation and terrorism the other elements can’t help but feel slightly off. Luckily, it’s a minor problem because Favreau, his screenwriters and Downey get us to care so much about the guy inside the costume.

Unlike the Spider-Man films, which only talk about the idea of personal responsibility, this movie's actually about it. He given maybe just a couple of notes to play, but Downey plays them better than anyone else could have. It may not be the actor’s most challenging role but he realistically pulls off Tony’s transformation from ignorant playboy tycoon into peaceful crusader with subtle ease. He’s so talented he probably still could have pulled this off just fine had he just phoned it in, but I’m glad he chose not to. If I wasn’t blown away it’s just because I’ve come to expect work like this from him. Without Downey there would be no film, or at least not one this good.

All the fancy cars and homes are nice but if I were Tony Stark all I'd want is Pepper Potts as my assistant. And as for that actress playing her, I had to stop and wonder who she was, and what she did with Gwyneth Paltrow. Besides looking unrecognizably amazing, Paltrow shows off a sexy, spunky side we never suspected she had. Who would have thought that she actually knows how to have fun? Her chemistry and interplay with Downey is priceless and the script wisely doesn’t push things too far between them. It doesn’t have to. Supposedly, Downey convinced her to take this by asking her if she ever gets tired of starring in great movies that no one sees. There's a lot of truth in that. Potts should be just the typical throwaway love interest but Paltrow makes it more. Here may be the first time she’s come off as both an actress and a movie star. The latter has always seemed to be missing. It took this role to bring it out.

In addition to Downey, the always-reliable Jeff Bridges has to sell a tough, multi-layered transformation as well when his intentions are revealed to be a bit different than we thought at the beginning. And as usual, Terrence Howard is wasted with a throwaway role but gives his all. Through no fault of his own, audiences may have a tough time remembering he was even in the film

It’s somewhat disappointing that the last half hour of the film plays like a standard issue comic book movie with a final battle scene reminiscent of Transformers. But I can’t say the movie in any way deteriorates or Favreau doesn’t have a strong grip on the visual effects, which are impressive without being overwhelming. I’m in the unique position of being one of the few to view this film after The Dark Knight and it says a lot that this still doesn’t suffer greatly in comparison. That film was an epic crime drama, but this is very much a popcorn summer action movie and a completely different animal altogether. The Dark Knight wasn’t without its flaws also but the big difference is that they were so interesting you could analyze them for years. The flaws here are more of what you’d typically expect to see in a movie like this.

I think the reason the movie has been slightly overpraised is because we’ve gotten so used to junk in this genre for years and are thrilled that an actor of Downey's abilities is there to elevate the material. For what its worth, I'd rank Downey’s work in this ahead of both Toby Maguire’s in Spider-Man and Christian Bale’s in The Dark Knight. I’ll be interesting for me to see how Ed Norton’s performance in The Incredible Hulk holds up against those.
As much as I enjoyed this I’m not interested in a sequel, or if there is a sequel, there should be a limit of one. The last thing we need is for Downey to be tied up in a series of Iron Man films and turn into another Tobey Maguire, who’s once promising career has now been obliterate because no one can ever think of him as anyone other than Peter Parker. Doing this once or twice is fine but we can’t afford to lose an actor like Downey to big-budget action movies. Having said that, it’s great to see him enjoying the success and acclaim he is right now. It’s been a long time coming. Critics and film buffs always knew how good an actor Robert Downey Jr. is, and now thanks to Ironman, everyone else finally does too.


JD said...

Excellent review. As long as Favreau and Downey keep doing the Iron Man, they will be good.
They get it!!!
Downey is perfect as Tony Stark and quite frankly it is the scenes of Tony Stark that are the most fun.
I could go for a couple more of these and live without some of the comic book films.

thebonebreaker said...

A Most Excellent Review Jeremy!

I, for one, LOVED Iron Man, and I am not only looking forward to a Sequel, but to the hinted at Avengers Movie as well :-)